OKLAHOMA CITY -- There was something a little different about the Oklahoma City Thunder on Thursday, and it goes deeper than just the tangible thing that they had a new starting shooting guard.
Corey Brewer made his first start for the Thunder, taking the place of Josh Huestis, who had occupied the spot the last seven games. The Thunder stomped the Phoenix Suns 115-87. While Brewer stepped in for Huestis, he's really stepping in for Andre Roberson, who was lost for the season on Jan. 27. Brewer was signed last week after being bought out by the Los Angeles Lakers. The Thunder were 8-9 entering this game since Roberson's injury, and after posting a top-five defensive rating, were allowing 109.2 points per 100 possessions (it would rank 27th in the league over the course of the full season) in that span.
With Brewer playing 28 minutes and scoring 17 points, the Thunder had an energy about them not seen in quite some time. Now, consider that this was all against the Suns, a team that has turned getting blown out into an art this season. There's obviously a context here, but for the Thunder, winning by a comfortable margin has not been normal for them, at least over the last month. Their last double-digit win came Feb. 11 against the Memphis Grizzlies, and since Roberson's injury, they've only held one opponent under 100 points (again, Memphis). Again, against Phoenix and such, but the Thunder just looked different.
"There's a bounce to him all the time. He brings energy," Billy Donovan said, who knows Brewer well after coaching him for three years at Florida. "I'm not comparing him and Andre in any way personalitywise or playerwise, but the one thing I will compare them, they both have a pop and a bounce to them where they play the game where they find the ball. They find it and are able to make plays."
The Thunder have had some moments since Roberson's injury, like blowing out the Golden State Warriors in Oakland, but for the most part, there has been some obvious life pulled from them. When Roberson went down, the Thunder were finally clicking on all the cylinders they'd been so desperately working on. They'd won six straight and were in the middle of playing an overwhelmingly dominant game in Detroit when Roberson's knee popped. They beat the Philadelphia 76ers the next night but then went on to lose four straight and went from talking threat levels to the Houston Rockets and Warriors to the back of the Western Conference playoff race.
Brewer isn't Roberson, and again, it's one game, and again, against the Suns. But he does restore some normalcy to what the Thunder want to do on both ends of the floor. He fits systematically, playing a similar role to Roberson. There was a clear comfort and chemistry for Russell Westbrook, Carmelo Anthony, Paul George and Steven Adams with Roberson.
"Listen, when you have Russell and Paul and Carmelo out there, and Steven's rolling to the rim, there's always going to be that fifth guy that's going to be left open a little bit," Donovan said. "I think the last couple years with Andre we've had to do a couple things to try and utilize his strengths."
What really made the Thunder go, though, was Westbrook playing at a completely ridiculous level. He was near-perfect, scoring 27 points on 11-of-14 shooting -- while resisting the temptation to take any 3s -- with 8 rebounds and 9 assists, and a handful of those came to Brewer on Roberson-esque cuts.
"It's great, man, to be able to get a guy moving around, cutting," Westbrook said. "Kind of fits right back in because Dre was really good at that as well, moving around, cutting, and he did a good job of that tonight."
"I played with James Harden. Him and Russell are so similar, they're so dynamic," Brewer said. "When they have the ball, even Paul, guys are just looking at them, and I know how to find my spots and get easy layups."
Westbrook has battled coming back from a nagging sprained ankle, but he embodies the Thunder emotionally more than anyone. It was clear on Thursday -- the energy and joy was back. He was fiery, he was loose, and he was having fun, miming finger-rolled layups after he made them, and losing his mind over a garbage time left-handed dunk from Nick Collison. The postgame locker room was as raucous as it has been in a while, with a lot of positive vibes flowing. Westbrook was wearing PG2s and light-heartedly barking at a staffer about a bet he'd apparently won. Roberson was at his locker, joking with teammates as he's able to walk without crutches or a bulky brace.
Maybe it's all coincidental, or maybe, again, it's because they played the Suns. But even in their recent wins, all against non-playoff teams, the Thunder have looked less than convincing. They've dragged themselves to wins over the Sacramento Kings, Orlando Magic, Suns (last week in Phoenix) and Dallas Mavericks. There has been a lack of something there.
The Thunder have been looking for some life, and some reason to feel good about themselves again. It might be a blowout win over the Suns, but there's an eye-test element in play. But given how this Thunder season has gone, those feelings can be fleeting. Perhaps with that in mind, with the San Antonio Spurs up next, Westbrook was measured in his postgame comments.
"It was good, good team win," he said. "Gotta get ready for Saturday now."